Stephen and Prue Henschke are the serene guardians of some of Barossa's most prized Shiraz, carefully tending 150-year-old vines with a mix of science and plucky intuition. By June Lee
Stephen and Prue Henschke of Henschke
It’s been seven years since Stephen and Prue Henschke last visited Singapore, and it’s also been an eventful decade so far where no Hill of Grace was made in 2011, with extremely limited releases upcoming for 2013 and 2014. That’s just down to nature, and the fifthgeneration Henschkes understand nature in a more profound way than many winemakers.
A fruitful growth
Three Henschke brothers migrated from Silesia to Australia in the mid 1800s, escaping persecution from what is now part of Poland. One of them, Johann Christian, a farmer and mason who established the property at Keyneton (previously named North Rhine after the Old World), which would lead to the foundation of Henschke winery in 1868. Between the three brothers, Stephen reckons there are at least 6,000 descendants today, part of the vast Lutheran German influence in the Barossa Valley.
Stephen’s earliest memory of farming is sitting on a horse and buggy at five years old with his grandfather, Paul Alfred Henschke, helping to round up sheep. Each generation of Henschkes made invaluable strides, and Paul was instrumental in keeping the winery going even when wines had taken a backseat to farming due to the 1930s Great Depression. Fourth-generation Cyril, Paul’s 12th child, took charge of the winery in the 1950s and phased out fortified wines. His foresight led to him pioneering the history of single-vineyard dry reds from the Eden Valley, releasing Mount Edelstone in 1952 and Hill of Grace in 1958 as vineyard designate Shiraz bottlings. Today, the latest bottling of Hill of Grace 2012 is priced at AUD825, neck to neck with Penfolds’ Grange 2012, which was released at AUD850.
A love for Shiraz
Winemaker Stephen gives the air of a perfectionist, while Prue comes across as the down-toearth (literally) viticulturalist. They are a couple in perfect sync after 43 years of marriage, studying and working together. They met at the University of Adelaide, where Prue (maiden name Weir) took botany and zoology classes, while Stephen did biochemistry and botany. They married in 1975 before leaving for Germany to study at the cutting-edge Geisenheim Institute, which was instrumental in their management of Henschke when they took over the winery in 1979 upon Cyril's untimely death.
Prue’s viticulture work has won awards, and for good reason. She’s made soil health and beneficial bacteria her area of concern, noting that when she started, you could always tell which were Henschke vineyards, thanks to the mounds of undervine straw mulch, which helps to naturally trap moisture as the vineyards are dry farmed. She’s also introduced different species of native wallaby grasses as well as native flowering plants like sweet bursaria that attract beneficial insects while also overseeing the recycling of grapeskins and stalks into biodynamic compost. Better trellising also reduced stressful photosynthesis during summer, leading to better development of flavour compounds and almost immediately, acclaim and recognition for their grapes.
“Shiraz is part of our blood,” affirms Stephen, who can’t name a better grape variety for the Eden Valley. “It expresses the sense of place more so than Cabernet Sauvignon. My job is to take that flavour and tannins from maturity through to the bottle, to preserve its spice complexity, aromas, structure and flavours.”
He points to the cyclonic activity in end January that brings much needed rainfall for
Shiraz just when it needs it, as though it was meant to be. Stephen and Prue love wines from elsewhere too, notably from Chateau de Montfaucon, whose owner Rodolphe de Pins worked at Henschke, and Ribero del Deuro, now that they have a Spanish daughter-in-law.
With the sixth generation working at the winery and Henschke wines entering the Chinese market, the 150th anniversary of the brand seems a good time for reflection. Hill of Grace, a translation of ‘Gnadenberg’ from their homeland of Silesia, is also the name of the Lutheran church that watches over the vineyard, where the 150-year-old vines could live to a 1,000 years old – if Prue gets her way over it.